Public Safety Diving: The Mental and Physical Preparations

erdi_course3Several years back, during an informal meeting to discuss the standards to be adopted for one of several new ERDI Diver Ops programs, one of the senior members of ERDI’s advisory panel – a senior law enforcement officer and active dive-team trainer – commented that “Being a successful Public Safety Diver is about 40% Physical, 80% Mental, 35% Training and Equipment, 10% Luck… and the remainder is Math!”

He got the biggest laugh of the morning, but his point was well taken: when we think about fitness to work in the varied environments, and under the stress levels common in the realm of PSD, we have to access ALL aspects of dive readiness. Forgetting one of the key elements that makes a well-rounded team and “fit for service” team members is a potential time-bomb for everyone involved and the communities being served.

Let’s deal with the physical aspects first.

It should be obvious to everyone involved in any aspects of Public Safety Diving that a higher than average level of physical fitness is required. But where is the bar set? What’s adequate and what’s unacceptable? For a team leader, these are critically important questions; but team members must also ask themselves these questions. As a PSD team member, you owe it to yourself and your teammates to know that you are physically ready to meet the demands of the job. Without a specific benchmark to compare one’s performance to, how is it possible to know the answer?

Outside the published ERDI standards for diver testing and prerequisites, the dive agency does not make any hard and fast recommendations about cardio, stamina, strength, and flexibility. Various departments and PSD teams usually have existing guidelines and, in general, these seem to serve adequately. However, internally – and when asked for specifics, for example by a team leader putting together a new PSD group – we default to the published fitness guidelines for the US Marshal Service.

One of the advantages of these guidelines is that they cover physical fitness guidelines for men and women, and from young recruits fresh out of the academy to veterans close to retirement age. They also have values for cardio-vascular stamina, strength, AND flexibility. There are several other tests and benchmarks which may also be followed, but you’ll find the US Marshal guidelines at:

ERDI_41_1Mental preparation is not as simple or straightforward to gauge, but still vitally important to consider and work at, since the stress of going from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye, has strong effects on both body and mind.

Few departments have the resources to invest in psychological testing or to administer personality and behavioral testing for its PSD teams. Therefore, for most PSD team members, the mental aspect of prep and fitness is almost entirely self-policed. As such, before a stressful operation – and surely that describes most PSD events – one has to ask: “Am I focused, rested, confident and honestly ready to manage the mental tax associated with this dive?”

We recognize today the potential existence and role played in ongoing mental health by both Acute Stress Response (ASR) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the type of work typically taken on by rescue and recovery teams. While critical counseling is sometimes available in larger organizations, this support is seldom offered to volunteer teams. Sometimes all that is available in these cases are strategies for prevention.

The most effective and simplest method is pre and post-event debriefing. Sure it would be helpful to have professional guidance and counseling; but ANY form of open and supportive debate can help and should NEVER be discounted. In fact, a thorough and detailed briefing AND debriefing should be part of every PSD team’s protocol for EVERY call. This gives the whole team – divers, surface support, admin staff and so on – a chance to go over tactics before the dive, and to share and learn what worked and what can be improved afterwards.

Perhaps one of the factors with the most influence on a PSD team’s mental fitness is TRAINING. Part of the function of training is to ensure that every member of the team understands their responsibilities and role before, during and upon completion of PSD team operations. Knowing that everyone has an overview of your job, and what you are being called on to do, can have a tremendously positive effect on everyone… from the lead diver and line tender to the person answering the phone back at the station.

While the exact mix of physical and mental fitness may be up for debate – does 40:80 sounds about right? – there is no doubt that being prepared to perform effectively and efficiently demands an open mind and a thoroughly professional approach that can only be achieved through hard work and a supportive team structure. For more on these topics, please contact ERDI.

Contact ERDI

If you would like more information about ERDI, please contact:

Tel: 888.778.9073 | 207.729.4201

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